How to Smoke Pork Butts for BBQ Competitions
The art of smoking pork butts for competition BBQ isn’t just about the meat, it's about the entire package: the look, the feel, the smell, and how it tastes. Truth be told, you’re not out to present tender, juicy, delicious meat to your competition judges. You want that little something extra that makes a blind taste-tester say, after a single bite, "Wow! This is the best thing I've ever tried!" The big secret to achieving that something? Patience, diligence, and knowing how to hit your competition BBQ with a serious explosion of insatiable flavor.
Thanks to our friend, Diva Q — worldwide veteran to BBQ competitions as both participant and judge — this isn't some lofty concept dangled overhead with the vaguest wording possible. With her wood-fired wisdom, you'll learn the best ways to invoke that burst of BBQ bravado that'll get the judges overlooking rival competition entries left, right, and center. There may be a little work involved (and it might just get a little messy), but the real BBQ awards don't come easy. Crack a beer, grab your apron, and let Diva Q school you on how to smoke pork butts like a real pro!
What to Know Before You Start
Know the specific requirements of your BBQ competition upfront.
Always, always, ALWAYS have a backup plan at hand.
Don't forget to bring your most reliable meat thermometers!
Judges will only get 1–2 tastes of your turn-in box. Make them count!
Unlike the heavier prep work before, this stage of the BBQ competition process relies on executing key steps as perfectly as possible. The biggest factors here are likely to be the quality of the meat you’ve chosen, and of the ingredients you have at hand. Luckily for you, the smoker will handle most of the heavy lifting. That’s no excuse to get sloppy, though — it just means the spots where you do intervene to give that pork butt the treatment it needs just might make more of a difference than ever.
Pork Butts on the Smoker
Now that it's game day, guess what? It's time to get your head in the game. Every step taken between meeting those internal temperature hurdles is just as important as the smoking process itself. After all, you’re smoking competition-level pork! I's not as simple as flipping a few times until it's done. Your meat is on a strict schedule, and every minute counts. Bear in mind that every pork butt will cook faster or slower (depending largely on its size). You'll also need to remember that you're not just looking for doneness: you're looking for that rich mahogany bark.
Which Smoker to Use?
It’s a simple fact of the competition circuit: professional grillers use professional equipment. When we asked Diva Q her opinion on what she uses to bring home the big wins: “Every world championship that I have accomplished has been done on a Traeger grill, and that's really important to note that that consistency, along with skill set, has facilitated that.” The brand is a household name in the pellet-smoking game for a reason — Joe Traeger invented the very concept of pellet smoking. When you think “pellet smoker,” chances are that the Traeger name comes to mind quickly.
But the Brand Isn’t Everything
Are we saying you need a Traeger smoker to win? Of course not. We’re simply saying we think the brand’s a fine choice for BBQ competitions. But they’ve stayed at the front of the pack for decades thanks to their legendary consistency and power. We offer other excellent alternatives for bringing home the ribbon; as Diva Q said, skill set is just as important. Whatever the smoker you choose to give you the competitive edge, don’t forget to bring your a-game too!
Positioning the Pork
Now, back to the actual cooking! While the smoker’s cold, set out your pork butt cuts to get nice and cozy in that cooking chamber. We’re all about protecting the money muscle, so you’ll want any of those facing each other and centered on the bottom rack. Now, once you’ve positioned all your meat, turn that smoker on at 180°F — and every 45 minutes to an hour, spritz your meat with apple juice.
One of the key things while prepping competition pork butt is monitoring the temperature on those money muscles: your target inner heat is about 155°F. In that ballpark, you’ll see a deep, rich red mahogany color as the bark matures. It’s very important to not let it stray over that line, because small mistakes like that can mean the difference between delivering truly prize-winning pork and submitting meat that amounts to practice for your next run.
How to Prepare the Pork Slather
Impeccable appearance isn’t always a necessity for home pork. However, for competition, you’ll want an absolutely smooth texture. The way you’ll do this is to assemble your ingredients for the pork slather and literally whisk them in a bowl. The consistency of the slather is paramount for the presentation of your pork — and the judges’ rating! Most competition slathers are made from a combination of whole and ground spices, juices, and sugar. Spoiler alert: we're not bucking tradition here. Bucking tradition doesn't exactly bring home the big win.
Starting Your Pork Slather
Start with brown sugar — and this really goes without saying, but you’ll want to break up any clumps. Drizzle some honey in there; it’s great because it gives that stickiness. Next, you’ll need to stir in some MSG. That’s right, MSG! For competition-level flavor, you need competition-level ingredients, and few things on the planet bring the taste explosion like tried-and-true MSG.
Aye, There's the Rub
Next, whisk in your rub of choice. Now, this is a big make-or-break for winning awards; your judges won’t be eating an entire sandwich of competition pork. They’re literally taking a bite or two, which means that big bite needs to have big impact. Whichever pork rub you decide to use, make sure it packs a real (but not overpowering) wallop. Diva Q used the reliably strong Traeger pork and poultry rub.
Bringing the Heat
For many grillers new and experienced, nothing amps up the competition heat like, well, heat. Add a little bit of hot sauce to balance out all that sweetness. (Remember: less is more.) Before we add the liquid, you’ll need your big source of fat. Some use margarine; others use butter. Diva Q is all about ghee (pronounced like ‘geese’). Her recommendation is based on the nuttier flavor, and the absence of all milk solids.
Whisking Your Slather
Once your bowl is loaded up, it’s time to start whisking. Blend this into a nice, consistent mixture before you add in the next big boost: apple juice (in small and manageable doses). This will be coated over the pork. Your target texture is a sticky base that’s not too runny: think sauce, not soup. Your competition pork should be submerged in a nice, delicious slather, not sitting in a puddle of gravy. The biggest factor in how much apple juice you’ll need is whatever you chose for fat content. And it can vary in how long it takes to whisk… but when it’s done, you’ll be standing over a big bowl bursting with flavor.
How to Smoke BBQ Pork
Though the actual smoking portion of preparing pork butt for a BBQ competition is mostly hands-off, there's enough going into it that can make or break your entry before you begin. (Fortunately or not, you can't simply set your smoker to "low", throw the meat in, and come back 4 hours later to grab your trophy.) For the most part, the meat is going to smoke and cook on its own, but there are a few things to keep in mind — and a couple of ways to ensure the makings of a high-quality turn-in box before that final temperature check.
Preparing the Money Muscles
One of the biggest concentrations in a competition turn-in box is the money muscle (spoiler alert, it’s not getting old anytime soon). Once your pork butts hit 155°F, remove them from the grill and set them on a large sheet of aluminum foil on a countertop ready for a messy cutting and coating job. Take a sharp knife, hold it carefully, and cut it so that you don’t split the money muscle. You’re going to wrap it with some of that delicious slather, so aim for a nice and even cut.
Slathering the Money Muscles
Diva Q likes to set the money muscle sitting straight up in the package; this allows her to cradle all that slather over the muscle. Cutting it nice and even along the bottom, pull it right back at the fat line, then prepare to slather it up. Why? Flavor bomb! Once the money muscles are cut free and ready for the flavor, coat them generously in that scrumptious, beautiful slather. Ensure you to cover every exposed millimeter of that money muscle. It’s a messy job, but it’s a very worthwhile job.
Wrapping the Money Muscles
Once the money muscles are slathered completely, hit them with a little spritz of apple juice to give them a little moisture. Afterward, we’re going to take the foil beneath the meat and form an improvised BBQ grill inception — an oven WITHIN the oven! Carefully, gently pull up the sides of your foil and close them overhead in a folded scrunch. Without disturbing the slather, reach in with a hand and poof the top; we want less of a blanket, more of a tent. Maintaining the integrity of the money muscle’s bark means not letting the foil sides or top touch the meat as it finishes cooking.
Once the money muscles are secure and back in the smoker, you’ll do the same with the rest of the pork butts. Set them in disposable aluminum pans and be sure to generously coat them in all that delicious, gorgeous slather! Wrap them up the same way with aluminum foil, then help them into the grill alongside those money muscles. Turn that knob to 275°F and step back. Your target internal temperature is 202–208°F. Pour yourself a drink and take a breather; when you resume, you’ll be cutting and preparing your BBQ pork for the competition judges!